SHANGHAI -- You usually can't help noticing the void the absence of a top player leaves.
Take for instance Rafael Nadal, who sat out the entire second half of 2012 to mend his menacingly achy knees. No matter where you were, the Spaniard became the seminal topic of conversation at times: How are his knees? When will he return? Will he be as good as ever?
"My position last year in that moment was a position that I didn't know when I have the chance to be back," said Nadal, addressing the difference a year makes during his prematch news conference at the Shanghai Rolex Masters on Tuesday. "I didn't have the surgery. I just tried to do different regimens."
Of course, we had the answer to that question almost immediately upon Nadal's return in February. He was not just as good as ever, he was better than before. Although Nadal lost in last week's Beijing final to Novak Djokovic, he reclaimed the No. 1 ranking after putting forth one of his best seasons, which included victories at the French and US Opens and eight other titles.
On Monday afternoon, we glimpsed how much Shanghai fans missed Nadal last year when teenaged fans, much to the chagrin of hotel security guards, managed to get into the lobby of the Shanghai establishment where the world No. 1 is ensconced. A security detail tried to restrain the kids, but Nadal warmly greeted the youngsters, signed some autographs and posed for a few pictures.
Although Nadal has returned to reigning over the tour, Andy Murray, a former two-time Shanghai Rolex Masters champion (2010 and 2011) and reigning Wimbledon champion, is currently on an injury timeout. A chronic back problem resurfaced in the spring, keeping Murray from playing in the French Open. The rest enabled him to return to the court to win the grandest of prizes -- Wimbledon -- becoming the first British man since 1936 to succeed on the great lawn at the All England Club.
But his bad back became a bother again by the US Open, leaving the defending champion on the outside looking in after a quarterfinal loss. Murray went on to help Britain defeat Croatia to earn a spot in the 2014 Davis Cup World Group, but from there, he went straight under the knife in attempt to alleviate a disc problem in his lower back.
But how much is Murray missed?
One difference between Nadal and Murray is that the Spaniard released almost no information as he nursed his knees back to health for seven months, leaving more than a little intrigue surrounding his situation. He kept mum about the diagnosis and rehabilitation. In contrast, Murray has taken a different approach in telling it like it is: Back surgery would cut his 2013 season short. Totally transparent with his fans, Murray even tweeted a post-surgical thumbs-up photo from his hospital bed in late September. There are no guarantees on Murray's return, but his hope is to be training in Miami as usual in November and back on tour in time to compete at the 2014 Australian Open in January.
"I guess [Nadal's] injury, not many people knew exactly what was going on," John Isner said. "Andy, he had a small surgery on his back. It's as simple as that. He needed to take the rest of the year off. Probably a smart move for him. He needs to be as healthy as possible for 2014. But with Rafa, I guess it was a bit of an unknown. Nobody really knew when he was going to come back, if his knees were going to be 100 percent again. He's answered all those critics. He's No. 1 in the world again, which is pretty remarkable."
If we are to measure Murray's absence this year in comparison to Nadal last year, it would be fair to say he hasn't reached the same level of water-cooler conversation here in Shanghai.
Beyond British borders, Murray, a two-time Grand Slam champion with Wimbledon and the 2012 U.S. Open titles, isn't quite on the same superstar spectrum as Nadal or Roger Federer. Without a doubt, Murray's Wimbledon heroics made an entire nation weep with joy, and the Scot has practically been anointed an honorary royal. Nevertheless, the rest of the world hasn't become totally manic about Murray -- at least not yet.
That said, while the fans and media aren't making a big deal about Murray skipping Shanghai, the players are certainly not oblivious to his absence.
"Is a negative for the world of tennis that he's not able to play here in the last part of the season," Nadal said. "But at the same time, I am happy for him that if he's able to recover 100 percent well, and he's able to play with no pain, will be much better for him. At the end mentally, when you are playing with pain, mentally is very tiring. I know that. That's something that what was happening to him last period of time. So I think he made the right decision. Was the right moment to take that decision, after the US Open, in my opinion."
As Nadal can attest, it's not about the attention; it's about health and, of course, success.